Unsurprising, and heartwarming, was the conversation overheard in line at the Great American Music Hall. To paraphrase the unseen woman behind me, speaking of a friend: "And then we found him passed out. He'd, like, put my red fishnets on, and his legs were all splayed open." Though these sorts of cheerily rendered tableaux hardly pass for decadence anymore, their utterance at a Swans show (finality notwithstanding) added an apropos, if passe, sleaze. Michael Gira, Swans' deadpan frontman, may never have passed out in fishnets, but some of his neighbors probably did. I picture the various musicians and artists of Gira's era (whoa, a whole different era, only 15 years ago) all squatting in the same filthy tenement building, fistfighting over who is more socialist, shooting bargeloads of junk, trapping rats for food, and thumbing through Interview looking for their mention. Feral Warholites, if you will. (The packed-house audience would testify to none of this; they were all well-behaved and appreciative, save one sloppy-drunk idiot who stumbled into my companion a couple of times.)
Swans' approach to music (and, if you believe the subject matter of their songs, to life itself) predates what is currently understood as "underground." It speaks of a time when rock bands could be (or could pass themselves off as) authentic sadists, who actually did unpleasant things, or, at the very least, spoke often enough about doing unpleasant things that they might as well have done them. Seeing this sort of "underground" band live wasn't like seeing Downy Mildew or other collegiate hobbyists; listening to their records wasn't solely a matter of entertainment. Pardon my drip: Used to be that "underground" wasn't synonymous with (or even evocative of) "alternative" or "indie"; that just listening to Swans and their ilk seemed menacing -- a flirtation with danger, with depravity, with, da da duuum, evil itself, broached through a purely intellectual angle. (Ooh, did you feel a chill?)
None of which would matter more than a used Kleenex in an ocean of nostalgia if Swans' final show didn't, you know, rock. And rock it did, with huge, stupid drums; brazen guitar dissonance; percussive, sliding bass; spooky (if stagey) keyboard; and attitude, attitude, attitude. A more worthwhile outing by far than listening to their farewell album, Soundtracks for the Blind. Not that I could name any of Swans' back catalog any more readily than I could the tracks off of that final self-indulgence. I never bothered remembering any Swans song titles, and, indeed, never bought any of their albums. I wasn't exactly a fan. I found their pretense and general gloom more entertaining as a package than as a songwriting aesthetic. Crank and thump topped with minimal guitar drones was quaint as a quilt by the time I even heard Sonic Youth. But on Sunday, Swans demonstrated that sparse, concept-driven music can still sound great live, with all the visceral qualities of more moronic rock forms. (One-time Swans drummer Ted Parsons did move on to the metal band Prong, after all.)
Swans are a somewhat unusual decadent's band in that they have (or had) two charismatic frontpersons. First there's Gira, who seems to take everything so seriously, who stands with his back to the audience as often as facing them. His asides were delivered with the sort of terse portent heard from Lance Henriksen, the guy on Millennium: "You're too kind ... thank you for your kindness." Gira has the sort of unresponsive face that looks like it's been stilled by scar tissue. Jarboe, Swans' gothic Linda McCartney (i.e., a former groupie who slept with the bandleader and then joined on keyboard), has that gaunt-faced underground stage presence of yore down. Not only could she spit and snarl and talk about drinking blood -- she could stand perfectly still like a sullen caryatid while the musicians behind her made a painful and captivating racket. (Incidentally, Wednesday was always my favorite Addams.)
As for Swans' affect of endless repetition, prolonged crescendo, and gimmicky catharsis -- sure worked a whole hell of a lot better for them than it did for openers Windsor for the Derby. At times, these Austin ambients seemed to have no loftier ambition than to perfect the intonation of A at 440 cycles per second. (They occasionally used D's and G's, but A was their patsy note.) Maybe there's some validity to searching for craft in an infinitely regressing navel-gaze, but it sure made for a boring set. Swans offered volume swells, builds, rough tonality, and precision -- in short, whether you took them as seriously as they took themselves, at least Swans had drama. Windsor just seemed to flatline. Dead-and-gone underground, as demonstrated by the slated-for-demise Swans, may have been single-minded in its insistence on the unpleasant, but it sure was more interesting than the current sanitary batch. Rock has always thrived more on filth than on brains.